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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cambodian human-rights activist brings crusade to Westport

Human-rights activist Mu Sochua, a Cambodian parliamentarian who leads the opposition party and advocates for justice and rehabilitation for victims of human trafficking, cheered yesterday's release of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest in Burma. "We cannot stop being vigilant," Mu Sochua told 200 people gathered at Westport's Seabury Center on Saturday night.

Sponsored by the Connecticut Council of Vital Voices, an international non-profit organization that trains and empowers women in developing countries, Mu Sochua and director Guy Jacobson were in Westport to publicly screen "Redlight," a documentary film that shares the stories of four children who were kidnapped, raped and sold into prostitution before they were 14 years old.

"Redlight" will also be shown this afternoon at the Ridgefield Playhouse at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Like Aung San Suu Kyi, Mu Sochua recently learned that a lawsuit that would have sent her to prison was dismissed. However, Mu Sochua continues to campaign for her causes as she travels throughout Cambodia's small villages, talking to people and trying to help children who are vulnerable to human traffickers. "I call it `barefoot democracy,' " Mu Sochua smiled.

As vividly depicted in "Redlight," Mu Sochua also helps children who are victims of human trafficking. The goal, she said, is to turn them into survivors. Despite legislation prohibiting such crimes, corruption has allowed perpetrators to escape punishment, she said. In fact, the film blatantly stated that, even when the criminals are identified, it's the responsibility of the young victims to round up witnesses and evidence to back up their claims.

In some cases, the children's parents are the ones who sell them to the brothels. And, one mother said on camera that if she were to receive $10 a month again, she would sell her second daughter, too, when she is older. In this situation, the older sister took her sibling to Somaly Mam, a former child prostitute who now operates safe houses and rehabilitation centers for young children.

In praise of Mu Sochua's perseverance, Jacobson told those gathered that during the filming of "Redlight" he employed 40 bodyguards carrying automatic machine guns for protection. "I was told that there were contracts out on me from the Chinese and Cambodian mafias, and this was just because I was making a movie about human trafficking," he said. "This puts into perspective the work that Mu Sochua does daily -- and she does it without any bodyguards. She is an incredible woman, doing incredible work."

Shaking off the compliments, Mu Sochua, who was in exile for 18 years after her parents put her on plane to escape the genocide sweeping through Cambodia, returned to her country committed to helping rebuild it. In 1998 she was appointed minister for women's affairs. This is where her work as a champion for children's and women's rights began. A member of Parliament since 2008, Mu Sochua has spoken out against a government that she perceives as a corrupt dictatorship.

"If you're going to be for human rights, what is important is that you stand on your principles at all times," Mu Sochua said. She feels inspired and hopeful about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Cambodia and her public commitment to support Mu Sochua's opposition party. She urged the Westport community to write to legislators and implore them to also support these efforts. "This is an action you can take," she said.

All proceeds from Saturday night's event will be used to support Mu Sochua's programs in Cambodia. Although she does not seek financial support, Mu Sochua expressed appreciation to the attendees for watching the film -- disturbing, at times, for its realistic and heart-wrenching portrayal of children's plight -- and she said that it's by making people aware of the existence of human trafficking that changes may occur.

Jacobson pointed out that child prostitution doesn't only occur "over there." Danelle Ragoonanan-Storph, director of Bridgeport-based Project Rescue and Assist New America, agreed that similar activities occur in Fairfield County.

Roberta Cooper, co-president of the Connecticut chapter of Vital Voices, of Westport, said she was impressed by Mu Sochua's humanitarian efforts when they initially met four years ago at one of the organization's global summits. "We've since become friends," she noted. "The response that we've had tonight shows that this is an issue that people really care about."

Contributions can be made to Vital Voices Global Partnership. They are tax-deductible. Checks may be sent to Roberta Cooper, c/o P.O. Box 3363, Westport, CT. For more information, contact Cooper at
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Cambodian Prison: A place of torture and death for innocent

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — From a distance, the former Chao Ponhea Yat High School provided no outward evidence of the horrors that awaited me once inside when I arrived aboard a “tuk-tuk” taxicab, a small, two-wheeled canopied trailer pulled by a motorcycle.

Set on a narrow side street in this chaotic and poverty-stricken capital city of Cambodia, the complex of five three-story concrete buildings surrounded by a playground, palm trees, small shops and food stalls appeared commonplace and ordinary as my driver, 35-year-old Kosal, let me off at the front gate.

But first impressions can be deceiving.

The former school that once accommodated 1,000 students had been converted into the notorious Security 21 or Tuol Sleng Prison by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime when it won the Cambodian Civil War in the mid-1970s, and it soon became the nation's largest penal center where thousands of innocent men, women and children were interrogated, beaten, tortured and killed until it was shuttered four years later.

Now a genocide museum, the prison serves as the testament to the irrationality and cruelty of the radical Khmer Rouge movement led by the infamous “Brother Number One” Pol Pot from 1975 until 1979, when the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia during a border dispute between the two nations that ultimately led to the defeat and flight of the Communists, the closing of the prison and the re-establishment of comparative peace and order.

During their four-year reign, the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and other cities, forcing their inhabitants to move to the countryside and work as slave laborers in an effort to create a fundamentalist, agrarian utopia in which money, machinery, automobiles, modern medicine, religion, private property, education and all semblances of modern civilization were abolished.

Government officials, Buddhist monks, teachers, professors, students, doctors, scientists and all those in the middle and upper classes were murdered outright by the Khmer Rouge or taken to Tuol Sleng Prison and other facilities where they were interrogated and forced to write false confessions that implicated family members, friends and neighbors before being tortured and put to death.

As I entered the prison, I was joined by a middle-aged German couple and two young Swedish backpackers.

“I hope all five of us can stay together in here. It is too terrible just for the two of us,” said the German woman as she clutched her husband's arm.

I, too, needed the company of sympathetic others. What lay before me in the museum was unspeakable. I will never be able to erase from my mind what I saw.

The former classrooms had been converted into tiny brick cells where prisoners were chained to the walls and floors before being photographed and interrogated. The windows, doors and outer corridors were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes or prisoners jumping to their deaths from the upper levels.

Prisoners were ordered to stand at attention in their cells during daylight hours, and when night came they were shackled together with bars and chains, instructed not to speak with their fellow inmates and forced to sleep in their underwear jammed head-to-toe against one another on the bare floors.

Following days of interrogation, the prisoners were led to windowless chambers where they underwent medieval tortures too gruesome to describe, taken to a courtyard and beaten to death with shovels, pickaxes or clubs and buried on the school grounds.

When the graves could hold no more bodies, prisoners were bound with wire, blindfolded and trucked 10 miles to the famous killing fields at Choeug Ek where they were beaten to death and thrown into mass graves.

Of the estimated 14,000 to 20,000 prisoners incarcerated at Tuol Sleng, all met death except for seven who managed to escape. More than 1.8 million Cambodians, approximately one-fourth of the nation's population, died during the four-year Khmer Rouge terror from torture, murder, starvation, overwork or disease.

Walking the halls of the prison, I arrived in a room where photographs of the prisoners taken by their captors were displayed on large panels. Several were of women holding infants in their arms. I also came upon a case holding several of the prisoners' skulls that were unearthed in the schoolyard.

The German woman in my small group burst into tears at this sight. “This is like Nazi Germany,” she cried, running outside.

More than 35 years after the depredations began, justice has finally commenced. The prison chief known as “Duch,” who has already served 11 years in prison, was convicted four months ago by a UN-backed tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity and will serve an additional 19 years behind bars. Trials for other Khmer Rouge officials are to begin in early 2011.

Kosal, my taxi driver, told me when I left the prison, “Duch's sentence was too lenient. He should have been executed. Both my parents, two brothers and 20 of my aunts and uncles were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. There is no real justice here.”

Perhaps John Hall, associate professor of international law at Chapman University who has carried out extensive human rights field work and research in Cambodia, best articulates the reactions of those such as myself who have visited Tuol Sleng.

“I have been to the prison many times,” he told me, “and each time I am more shocked by its depravity and inhumanity. Tuol Sleng was a center of bestiality, barbarism and hopelessness.”

• David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.
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Authorities demolished 78 homes

Nearly 80 homes in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district were demolished by authorities over the weekend after a Supreme Court verdict on Friday awarded the land to a development company.

Lou Vannaret, who lives in Lek Muoy commune, said residents had been banned from returning to their dwellings since Friday when the verdict was announced, declaring the land the property of the Ly Hong Sin Company.

“Residents dared not come out and complain against them because they have military forces guarding them,” he said.

Village representative Mon Sina said 149 families had been living in the area since 1999.

But Kim Eng, deputy chief of the provincial court, said the demolitions were in accordance with the Supreme Court verdict.

“They are not homes,” he said.

“They just built them up in the wild and no one lives there. We have dismantled 78 cottages so far and we will leave the villagers to dismantle the remaining 43 huts by themselves.”

Representatives of the Ly Hong Sin Company could not be reached for comment.
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